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How the Obamas opted their children out of high-stakes standardized tests

President  Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and the “Easter Bunny” arrive on the balcony for the start for the annual Easter egg roll on the South Lawn of the White House on April 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. (AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGANMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Thousands of public school parents around the country are opting their children out of taking high-stakes standardized tests this spring, tired of the emphasis on high-stakes testing and concerned about the validity of the assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards or similar standards. A growing number of principals and superintendents are supporting parents in this decision, though pushback is getting stronger from others. But, says educator Alan Singer, there is another way to opt out your child from standardized testing — send them, if you can afford it, to a private school that doesn’t give them.

The Obamas, for example, send their two daughters to the elite Sidwell Friends School, a private Quaker preK-12 school with campuses in Washington D.C., and Bethesda, Md. Sidwell, like other independent schools, does not bombard its students with high-stakes standardized tests. (It also doesn’t evaluate teachers by the test scores of their students, a policy promoted by the Obama administration.)

Here’s a piece from Singer on why parents have chosen to opt out their children from these tests, albeit in different ways. Singer is social studies educator in the Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, and the editor of Social Science Docket (a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for Social Studies). He taught at a number of secondary schools in New York City, including Franklin K. Lane High School and Edward R. Murrow High School. He is also the author of several books.  A version of this originally appeared on his Huffington Post blog.

By Alan Singer

It was easy for Barack and Michelle Obama to opt-out. They send Sasha and Malia to the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C. where tuition is about $35,000 a year and students do not take high-stakes Common Core-aligned tests. The Obamas chose this school in part because it offers children an enriched curriculum, not constant test prep. It was also easy for New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to opt-out her children. According to her 2013 tax returns, her children, ages 12 and 7, attend the private Capitol Hill Day School, where they do not have to take high-stakes standardized tests either.

Wealthy celebrities are unwittingly part of the opt-out movement because their children attend or attended expensive private schools where they do not have to take high-stakes state-mandated standardized tests. They include Tom Cruise (daughter Suri, Avenues school in New York) and the children of the Jolie-Pitt clan (Lycée Français de New York).

Now you can opt out your children from high-stakes tests too. It’s not hard. NYS Allies for Public Education has a sample “refusal” letter and video instructions on its website. All parents have to do is fill out the letter and deliver it to the school principal, either in person or via email. They also recommend a follow-up call before the test dates to remind school personnel. Last year approximately 60,000 New York State students refused to take the tests. In New York State, high-stakes Common Core aligned math and reading tests will be administered in grades 3-8 from April 14 – 16 and April 22 – April 24.

Karen Magee, president of the New York state teachers’ union (NYSUT) is calling for a statewide boycott of the Common Core-aligned tests to protest new testing regulations and test-based evaluations of teachers propagated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Despite evidence against the validity of evaluating teachers using student scores on these tests, Cuomo demanded that 50 percent of every teacher’s evaluation be based on test results in their schools. Meanwhile, he is unable to explain how the 70 percent of teachers who do not teach tested subjects can legitimately be judged based on the tests.

Magee dismissed the tests as “not valid indicators of student progress” or of teacher performance:

“I’m a parent. My child is in 11th grade at this point in time. Had he been a third to eighth grader, he would not be taking the test. The tests are not valid indicators. The American Statistical Association has said there is no direct link to tie these tests to student performance or teacher evaluation.”

Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, the governing body for schools in the state, is trying to undermine the growing opt-out movement by offering to exempt teachers from high-performing school districts from evaluations based on student test scores. But children in those districts would still have to take the high-stakes tests and sit through months of test prep.

Jen Debler, a middle school teacher whose own children attend school in a high-performing Long Island district, emailed me, saying:

“I am refusing testing for my children again this year because I want creativity to return to their classrooms. I miss projects, book reports, and artwork. My middle schooler wishes for more hands on activities. I see a stark difference in the learning experiences of my older child compared to my middle and youngest. A flurry of module based worksheets has left my first grader uninspired by math.”

Long Island parents Henry and Christina Dircks also had both of their children opt-out from the high-stakes tests last year and they will opt-out again. They discussed it as a family and the children and parents all signed the opt-out letters. The Dircks family’s reasons for opt-out were featured in a letter published by a local newspaper. Henry Dircks wrote:

“I’m opting out my two children because I believe that these assessments are developmentally inappropriate, pedagogically untested and politically motivated. Our decision was not made lightly and included all members of the family in the discussion. As a high school social studies teacher, I hope that opting out will teach my children to question the conventional wisdom imposed by others, become informed and act on their convictions.”

Debra Capone is organizing parents at PS 154 in Brooklyn to opt-out. She explained to me that last year her kids took the test, but her son, who is now in fourth grade, found it highly stressful and she sees no reason to put him through it again. Her daughter, who is in fifth grade, has no problem taking the test and does well, but she decided she wants to opt-out because the test are not fair to other children.

Beth Dimino, an eighth-grade science teacher in the Comsewogue School District and president of her local chapter of the teachers’ union is refusing to administer the mandated standardized tests. The superintendent of her district, Dr. Joe Rella, is also a leading opponent of Common Core testing, as is Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Baraka is the first mayor of a major United States city to publicly endorse the right of parents to opt-out of high-stakes tests that have “undermined the promise of equity and opportunity.”

Sydney Smoot is a 9-year-old fourth grader from Hernando County, Florida. In a speech to the county school board, Sydney condemned the Florida version of the high-stakes tests for reducing children to numbers. She also objected to a confidentiality policy that bans children from discussing questions on the tests with their parents. In New York State, teachers and administrators are pressed to sign confidentiality agreements, but not 9-year-olds.

Carol Burris, award-winning principal at South Side High School in Rockville Center, New York is a leader in the opt-out movement. In an essay posted on The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet, Burris has essentially declared war on high-stakes testing and congressional and state politicians from both major political parties. Burris charges:

“It has become increasingly clear that Congress does not have the will to move away from annual high-stakes testing . . . Conservatives no longer believe in the local, democratic control of our schools. Progressives refuse to address the effects of poverty, segregation and the destruction of the middle class on student learning. The unimaginative strategy to improve achievement is to make standardized tests longer and harder….”
“The only remedy left to parents is to refuse to have their children take the tests. Testing is the rock on which the policies that are destroying our local public schools are built. If our politicians do not have the courage to reverse high-stakes testing, then those who care must step in.”

PS: My grandchildren read this column before I posted it, discussed it with their parents, and the entire family decided they would opt-out!